German police end march envisioned as far-right springboard

Police in eastern Germany halted an anti-migration protest march Saturday that emboldened far-right activists started, hoping to launch a nationwide movement capable of challenging the political establishment.

March organized by nationalist groups drew less than 4,500 participants before event ended early

People protest against a demonstration of anti-immigration party Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Chemnitz, Germany, on Saturday. The banner reads 'Never again! No stage for AFD.' (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

Police in eastern Germany have halted an anti-migration protest march that emboldened far-right activists started, hoping to launch a nationwide movement capable of challenging the political establishment.

A trio of nationalist groups held separate daytime rallies Saturday in the city of Chemnitz over the recent killing of a German citizen, allegedly by migrants from Syria and Iraq. The two largest groups also organized a joint nighttime march, thinking a broader force might emerge from the display of unity and take hold.

If the number of people who attended is any gauge, the envisioned far-right movement was in the earliest of embryonic stages. It drew about 4,500 participants, Saxony state police reported, before citing security concerns as the reason for ending the event early.

The demonstrators screamed and whistled angrily as officers broke up the protest.

Counter-protesters blocked the route before police ended the march early. The event brought together three nationalist groups enraged over the recent fatal stabbing of a German citizen. Two asylum-seekers have been arrested on suspicion of manslaughter. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

The march was stopped several times along the way as counter-protesters blocked the route. Police officers deployed to keep the two sides apart flooded into the street. The counter-protesters numbered about 4,000, according to state police.

The opposing camps also clashed in Chemnitz on Monday, the day after the fatal stabbing of the 35-year-old German citizen and the arrests of the migrants on suspicion of manslaughter. Scenes of vigilantes chasing foreigners in the city's streets have shocked people in other parts of Germany since then.

Police, at times, were unable to control the earlier protests and clashes. 

'Mourning march' devolves 

Leaders of the two groups that combined forces on Saturday night cultivated a different image for the "mourning march" by wearing dark suits and carrying white roses.

The event brought together previously isolated clusters of nationalists — from lawmakers to Hitler-saluting skinheads. However, the mood darkened as the sun set. People from both ends of the political spectrum could be seen drinking beer and shouting slurs at police.

The tension in the air reflected the polarization over Germany's ongoing effort to come to terms with an influx of more than one million refugees and migrants seeking jobs since 2015.

The right blames multiple problems on Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to allow in hundreds of thousands of asylum-seekers from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. Some far-right supporters argued before the killing in Chemnitz that migrants are responsible for an increase in serious crimes, especially attacks on women.

The protesters joined together for a nighttime march in the hopes they could unify. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

The anti-migrant sentiment has been particularly strong in Saxony state, where a traditional stronghold of groups sought to inspire a nationwide movement on Saturday night: the Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West, or PEGIDA, and the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which has won seats in federal and state parliaments with an anti-Muslim platform.

While the share of foreigners residing in Saxony remains below Germany's national average and displays of Nazi symbols are outlawed across the shame-marked country, far-right sympathizers mobilized with exceptional speed on the night of the Chemnitz death and the days after.

German Justice Minister Katarina Barley said Saturday that authorities should investigate the role of networks from the radical far right in spearheading the week's protests.

"We do not tolerate that right-wing extremists infiltrate our society," Barley told weekly newspaper Bild am Sonntag. "It's about finding out who's behind the mobilization of far-right criminals."

Local police unprepared

Local police appeared to have been caught unprepared when the slaying triggered the protests, which attracted crowds openly engaging in Nazi veneration and devolved into violence.

The victim in the fatal stabbing last Sunday morning was 35-year-old Daniel Hillig. A 22-year-old Iraqi and a 23-year-old Syrian have been arrested on suspicion of manslaughter.

Daniel Hillig, a 35-year-old German man, was the victim of the Sunday stabbing. Two asylum-seekers, a 22-year-old Iraqi and a 23-year-old Syrian, have been arrested. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer, known for his anti-migrant stance, said Saturday that he understood why "the people in Chemnitz and elsewhere are upset about the brutal killing" but added "there's no excuse for violence," Funke Media Group reported.

"We need a strong state and we have to do everything politically to overcome the polarization and division of our society," Seehofer said.

While anti-migrant protests took place in Germany before, especially during the early 1990s, a strong and vocal opposition usually was there to provide a counter-force. Artists organized concerts to raise awareness, and ordinary citizens lined up in kilometres-long human chains to protest violence against newcomers.

Chemnitz, a city known for its hardened neo-Nazi scene, at first attracted a comparatively weak response to the recent anti-migrant activity. Some 70 left-leaning and pro-migrant groups organized the "Heart not Hatred" rally that got in the way of Saturday's far-right march.

"I've a lot of experience with far-right protests in Chemnitz," said Tim Detzner, a member of the Left Party in the city, noting that the street riots this week "reached a level of aggression, brutality and willingness to use violence that we haven't known before."